‘It’s going to take all of us’: Philly district attorney joins effort to keep students safe

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is speaking at a podium surrounded by microphones with people scattered, standing behind him.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner called attention to the number of gun crimes affecting city students at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School in North Philadelphia Monday. At left is Superintendent William Hite. (Johann Calhoun / Chalkbeat)

Editor’s note: This article was updated to correctly attribute quotes to public officials.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner joined local officials Monday in a show of solidarity against the recent rise in gun violence happening near the city's schools.

He appeared with Superintendent William Hite, Mayor Jim Kenney, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, and educators and students at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary in North Philadelphia to call for a stop to the violence affecting students. 

They noted that district students had become victims of gun violence in recent weeks.

"This is a special moment in the history of the city — it is special that we remember that we have to protect our schools, we have to protect our students, we have to protect our teachers," Krasner said.

Since school started on Aug. 31, around 30 people under age 18 have been victims of gunfire, and several of the incidents occurred near school buildings. Of the 458 Philadelphia homicides since Jan. 1, 135 of the victims have been under 18, according to the city data.

Kayla Waddington, a 10th grader at Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School, called for the violence to stop. (Johann Calhoun / Chalkbeat)

Krasner said the officials were united Monday on five points: holding shooters accountable, especially for shootings that occur near schools; prosecuting gun possession cases, particularly those carrying in and on school property; prosecuting drug cases, especially those that are happening on or near school property; protecting teachers from harm; and committing to providing support to victims of homicides and non-fatal shootings and other crimes, including those in or near schools.
Krasner is running for a second term as district attorney. He’s facing a challenge from criminal defense attorney Chuck Peruto. The election is Tuesday.

Peruto, who was not at Monday’s press conference, said, “We have absolute lawlessness out there and the police can’t possibly keep up.”
Peruto said he believes that 10% of young people are causing the problems. If elected, he said he wouldn’t prosecute all juveniles as adults, and he would consider each individual case and whether it was a “particularly heinous crime.”
“The question is, what do we do with our 13, 14 and 15 year olds and early 16 year olds,” he said.
Hite said the public is now seeing “more brazen behavior in and around schools.”
“So much so that our young people begin to get worried and traumatized about whether or not it's safe to travel to and from school," he said. "It's going to take all of us, not just one agency that's standing up here today or one office. It will take all of our collective efforts to ensure that our young people remain safe, both to and from and while they're in schools."

Hite said district students have recently become victims of some of the "most unsettling acts of gun violence."

He said a 13-year-old was shot on the way to school, a 17-year-old was shot a few steps away from the school after dismissal, and a 16-year-old was ambushed outside of his home. The superintendent did not release the names of the students nor the schools they attend.

Kenney, who has been criticized for not declaring a state of emergency, called the rise of gun violence in the city amid the pandemic "sickening."

He said the city's Office of Violence and Prevention and the City Council has distributed $4.8 million to community organizations through anti-violence community grants and is working with the Carson Valley Children's Aid, which provides case management support to students at risk of becoming truant.

"But we know that one strategy is not enough to resolve the crisis. So we will continue to do everything possible to protect our communities and to work with city leaders and law enforcement to promote public safety," he said. 

Outlaw said since this summer, the Philadelphia Police Department and city leaders have discussed how best to use the safe corridors program in which volunteers provide extra supervision for students walking to and from school, similar to a neighborhood watch.

"Volunteers can opt to patrol routes around schools at the start and end of the school day or to keep watch from their home, for instance. Volunteers can work in teams sharing information and reporting any suspicious or unusual activities," Outlaw said.

Philadelphia schools’ safe zones program between the police department and the district started Monday, Outlaw said. In 25 zones encompassing 38 schools deemed among the most unsafe in the city, there will be an increased police presence.

Chief of School Safety Kevin Bethel said the police presence is critical because of the violence seen outside of the schools.

The Board of Education also recently voted to accept a $225,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to establish a "safe path" program at four high schools — Motivation, Sayre, Lincoln, and Roxborough. The district is in the process of preparing "requests for proposals" from community groups, and Bethel said he hoped that program would be well established by the end of the school year.

Aliyah Catanch-Bradley, principal of Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School, said school leaders are charged with the safety of their students inside the building. (Johann Calhoun / Chalkbeat)

Bethune Principal Aliyah Catanch-Bradley said school leaders are charged with the safety of their students inside the building. "But often they come to school very concerned about how they have to travel in some very unsafe conditions to get here."

Veronica Joyner, chief academic officer and founder of the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School, said the impact of gun violence on her school has been devastating. "I have lost students that were shopping and getting off of a SEPTA bus. I lost another student that heard gunshots and ushered with family members into the home and got shot in the back. I had still another coming in from working at Burger King to help support his family — they were shot and killed. My concern is that this has to stop."

An emotional Joyner said they have had to teach students how to take cover when they hear gunshots. "Why should I have to teach children to do that?" Joyner asked.

Herman Andino, an eighth grader at Bethune, said even though he feels safe at school, that's not the case when he leaves.

"I get anxiety because just around the corner eight murders have happened to students my age, and it's not right," he said.

Kayla Waddington, a 10th grader at Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School, called for the violence to stop. She said: "We need to destigmatize conversations about mental health and start programs that combat the source of the problem."

District Attorney Larry Krasner took time to praise the mock trial team at Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School, which is ranked fourth in the world. The students will soon head to Chicago for an international competition. (Johann Calhoun / Chalkbeat)

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